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Ron Nehring

GOP Risks an Addiction to Self-Funding Candidates

Democrats have repeatedly crushed “self-funding” Republican candidates at the ballot box, making now a good time to ask why our party appears to go out of its way to run wealthy candidates who fund their own campaigns, and better understand how these candidates fare on Election Day.

It’s been said that the road to political oblivion is lined with the remains of self-funding candidates.  President Steve Forbes, Governors Meg Whitman and Al Cheechi can each attest to how their wealth was insufficient to prevent Election Day wipeouts.

Why does our party seem to have such a bias in favor of rich candidates who can fund their own campaigns?  I count four major factors at work.

1. Contribution limits discriminate against candidates who must rely on others to fund their campaigns.  The Supreme Court has held that candidates have an absolute right to advocate on their own behalf with their own funds, without limits.  Meg Whitman could spend $170+ million on her own campaign, but only donate $27,200 to someone else.

2. Consultants like to have their invoices paid on time.  The skilled operatives who lend their talents and relationships to candidates usually prefer to be paid on a regular schedule, rather than having to, in effect, lend money to their clients by allowing them to defer payments when fundraising is slow.  Consultants have mortgages to pay, and candidates who reliably pay their bills can attract better talent.

3. Wealthy candidates who have already built their businesses have more time to dedicate to a political campaign than those who need to clock in every morning.  Running for office is an enormously time consuming task that can place major stresses on the family budget.  Candidates who don’t have to put in an eight hour day have an edge.

4.  Never been elected to anything? Don’t have a political infrastructure?  You can buy one – or at least, that’s what you’ve been told.  Every elected official leads their own political enterprise consisting of donors, volunteers, supporters, and activists from previous campaigns.  These political enterprises provide the foundation for future campaigns, including those for higher office.  Yet in a state where Republicans have no statewide elected officials, and thus few candidates with a pre-existing statewide political enterprises, the tendency is to try to buy such an enterprise – with money.  Big fundraising, coalitions, and field programs are meant to conjure up supporters from scratch in a matter of months, often with limited success.

So is all of this really a problem?  If you take a look at the Democrat playbook against Republican candidates, it is.  And it’s a big one.

Conventional wisdom in Sacramento and the state’s political press holds that California Republican candidates lose statewide because they are too conservative, or the Republican brand is seen as too “extreme.”  Yet, these nuggets can’t withstand much serious scrutiny.

Many Republican candidates have prevailed in heavily Democrat regions.  New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York Governor George Pataki, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, and California Governors such as Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarznegger all defeated Democrats who were ideologically closer to the plurality of their constituents.  If ideology was the sole or dominant factor in their elections, all would have lost.

It turns out that a candidate’s narrative – their personal story, and what is says about them – is often a stronger factor than ideology in the top-of-the-ticket races where candidates receive enough attention to define themselves independently of party labels.  Voters don’t cast ballots for a list of issue positions or platforms – they vote for a person, and voters want to know what kind of person they are putting into office, and how they are likely to use government power if elected.

The strategies Democrats used against Meg Whitman in 2010 and Mitt Romney in 2012 were identical.  They did not focus on issue positions or ideology nearly as much as they sought to create negative caricatures based on elements pulled from their personal narratives.  Issue positions and platforms can be tested and massaged.  A personal history can be spun, but not changed.

Whitman was portrayed as a mean monarch with ties to Wall Street bankers who once shoved a subordinate and treated her Latina housekeeper poorly.  Romney’s history at Bain Capital was used to paint him as an out of touch corporate raider who bought companies to break them up, sell off the assets and put everyday people out of work.  Episodes like tying the family dog to the roof of the car on a trip decades ago were cited to portray him as uncaring while Swiss and Cayman Islands bank accounts implied he didn’t pay his fair share of taxes.  Despite vast campaign resources, neither candidate was fully able to inoculate or insulate themselves from these portrayals, which proved devastating among the center and center-left voters needed for victory.

As the leader of the Republican Party from 2007 to 2011 I got to know both of these candidates, and their portrayal was very different from who they are in reality.  One might even say the portrayals were “unfair.”  Mitt Romney is an especially generous, sincere, and likeable man.  Yet, truth is often the first casualty in war, and political campaigns, and whining about “unfair” attacks after a loss serves little purpose.  As American humorist Finley Peter Dunne quipped, “Politics ain’t beanbag.”

We have many of excellent Republican elected officials and candidates who are both personally wealthy and solid, and this article is not meant to diminish their important contributions to the state and their communities.  However, too often wealth is seen as an unlimited positive for candidates, and the resulting bias in favor of “self-funders” is a dangerous one that leads some to overlook the obvious success Democrats have had in destroying wealthy Republican candidates who have not yet taken the time to build a solid record of public service and build a narrative beyond their business experiences.